Previous page Page 4 of 11 Next page
Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
11th - 15th century
16th - 17th century
18th century
     The reforming tsar
     St Petersburg
     Sweden and Russia
     Emperor of all Russia
     The tsarevich Alexis
     Peter and Catherine
     Seventy years of empresses
     Catherine the Great:
     Russo-Turkish wars
     Three partitions of Poland

19th century
To be completed

Bookmark and Share
The reforming tsar: 1698-1725

From the moment of his return from the Grand Embassy, in 1698, Peter makes it dramatically plain that he intends to westernize Russia's hide-bound oriental society and that he will be ruthless in achieving his purpose. He has had to hurry back from his European tour because the streltsy have again attempted an uprising against him.

The rebellion has been easily put down and the culprits are under arrest. Over the coming months Peter takes a personal interest in the interrogation, torture and brutal execution of some 800 rebels. This is his insurance policy against further threats to his rule. His programme of reform will take longer. But it too begins with a dramatic gesture.


The tsar celebrates his first evening back in Moscow with friends in the foreign settlement near Preobrazhenskoe, the village where he has grown up. He then spends the night in a favourite wooden hut from his childhood days, after ordering the leading boyars to attend him there in the morning.

They assemble in their long robes and beards, markedly different in appearance from Peter's own European clothes and shaven face. The beard in particular has been consciously preserved over the years as a symbol of the standards of old Russia. But on this morning the young tsar emerges from his hut with a pair of shears. He cuts a slice from the profuse whiskers of every boyar.


Peter accompanies this assault with a practical measure containing a touch of wit. Anyone who so wishes may remain unshaven. But there is to be a new tax - on beards.

This symbolic gesture is followed by an extensive programme of practical reform. Never, perhaps, has a ruler so rapidly transformed an antiquated society. Using the absolute power which he has established, Peter introduces new government structures at local and central levels. He replaces a chaotically unreliable army (a militia of noblemen and the professional streltsy) with a large standing force of peasants conscripted for life and properly trained. He creates a naval service and a fleet of warships.


The tsar launches industrial enterprises (as many as 200, for the most part using the labour of state-owned serfs) to develop mines and to build weapons and equipment for his army and navy. Encouragement is given to an entrepreneurial class to set up private commercial ventures.

Education is promoted. Secular schools are founded, for which western texts are translated into Russian. Russians needing specalist skills are sent abroad to learn them in foreign academies. At home professors of mathematics are employed to visit the houses of the gentry, whose sons are not allowed to marry until they attain a certain educational standard. The first Russian newspaper (Vedomosti, 'Records') is published from 1703.


Peter's measures touch all aspects of life. The currency is reformed, as is the Russian script (eight letters are lopped from an unwieldy Cyrillic alphabet). The Russian new year, previously September 1 (supposedly the date of the creation of the world) now becomes January 1. The Christian chronology of Anno Domini is adopted - though Peter's new calendar is less modern than it might be, for he chooses the Julian system rather than the Gregorian reform.

The problem of corruption is tackled by encouraging a pernicious system of informers. But nothing is too small for the tsar's attention. Building and fire regulations are introduced, and one ukase (imperial decree) even orders that crops are to be cut with scythes rather than sickles.


St Petersburg: 1703-1712

From 1703 Peter the Great has gratifying evidence of his achievements on behalf of Russia. A great project is taking shape at the mouth of the river Neva, on marshy wooded land which comes into Peter's possession in 1703. Within two weeks of gaining the area he starts to build the Peter and Paul fortress on the right bank of the river; the following year a royal shipyard is founded across the water. The first warship is launched from the yard in 1706.

A town grows rapidly on the site. In 1712 it becomes the capital, named St Petersburg after the tsar's patron saint. Its main street, the Nevsky Prospekt, is built by Swedish prisoners captured in the Northern War.


Peter the Great first intervenes in the Northern War early in 1700, seizing the southern coast of the Gulf of Finland. This territory has belonged since 1617 to Sweden, cutting Russia off from the Baltic. The campaign of 1700 ends ignominiously when the young Swedish king, Charles XII, defeats the Russians at Narva and regains the coastline. But Charles then turns south against other enemies. By 1703 Peter is able to recapture the mouth of the Neva from its Swedish garrison.

In 1707 the Swedish king prepares an invasion of Russia, now plainly emerging as his main rival in the Baltic. This time Peter the Great responds with the classic Russian tactic when Moscow itself is threatened.


Sweden and Russia: 1707-1711

In the autumn of 1707 Charles XII moves northeast from Saxony with an army of almost 40,000 men. His intention is to move towards Moscow during the summer of 1708, forcing Peter to withdraw from the Baltic to defend his capital. The plan is frustrated by Peter's strategy of avoiding a pitched battle while devastating the countryside between the advancing Swedish army and Moscow. By the autumn of 1708 Charles XII is forced to turn south into the Ukraine in search of food.

The winter of 1708-9 is unusually cold even for these inhospitable regions. It is a much reduced Swedish army, of some 18,000 men, which finally comes to grips with the Russians in July 1709 at Poltava.


The engagement is the first major disaster in Charles's brilliant military career. With almost the whole Swedish army either captured or killed, Charles himself escapes south into Turkish territory. He immediately enters negotiations with the Turks, who share his hostility to the Russians and are eager to recover Azov.

Charles summons a new army from Sweden, to provide his share of an anti-Russian alliance with Turkey. It never arrives, but the Turks on their own defeat Peter the Great in 1711 at the Prut river. In the ensuing negotiations Peter agrees to return Azov - and considers himself to have escaped lightly in giving no concessions at all to Sweden, as Turkey's supposed ally.


Emperor of all Russia: 1721

The eventual peace between Russia and Sweden, signed at Nystad in 1721, gives Peter everything he has hoped for from the twenty-one years of the Northern War. The coast of the eastern Baltic is now his. St Petersburg, which he has had the courage and effrontery to build on appropriated land, is internationally accepted as the capital of Russia.

The new city is perfectly placed to prosper at the junction of two great trade routes, just as Novgorod was when founded in this region almost a millennium earlier. At this northern apex, the river routes from the Black Sea and the Caspian link with the sea route through the Baltic to western Europe.


A few weeks after the signing of the peace of Nystad a service of thanksgiving is held in St Petersburg's cathedral. After the ceremony Peter goes in procession to the senate, where he is acclaimed under a new title greater than that of tsar. He is now 'Father of the fatherland, Peter the Great, emperor of all Russia'.

This reign, so triumphant on the political scene, has been accompanied by a dismal record in the emperor's private life. Within his family he behaves with the tyranny and the cruelty revealed also at times in his public career.


The tsarevich Alexis: 1716-1718

Peter's most pathetic victim is his only surviving son, Alexis. Intellectual in his interests, conservative in his attitudes and inclined to a life of ease and pleasure, the young man could not be more different from the hyperactive, intensely physical, practical-minded reformer who is his father. The tension between them causes Alexis to flee from Russia in 1716, taking refuge with the Austrian emperor.

His father, viewing this as an act of treason, tricks the young man into returning to Russia on a promise of clemency. He then imprisons him, and tortures his friends and his mistress to discover evidence of a conspiracy.


Little emerges, other than reports of Alexis saying that when he is tsar he will return the capital to Moscow and reduce the size of the navy. Such intentions may be capital offences in his father's eyes, but they are not enough to justify the scandal resulting from a formal execution of the heir to the throne.

Instead the prince dies discreetly in the St Petersburg fortress, after twice being flogged within inches of his life (with the fearsome Russian whip known as the knout) during the enquiry into his supposed rebellion. He has made the tactical error of having a son, the future Peter II, just three years earlier. With two male descendants of Peter the Great in existence, one is perhaps expendable.


Peter and Catherine: 1701-1725

The only lasting affection shown by Peter proves him as independently minded in his emotional life as in politics. Early in 1703 he becomes the lover of a Lithuanian peasant, captured in the Northern War and now working as the domestic serf of a Russian prince. Later in the same year, when their first child is born, the mother is received into the Russian Orthodox church under a new name, Catherine. She becomes the tsar's inseparable companion, bearing him seven children of whom two daughters survive infancy. Divorced from his first wife, Peter marries Catherine formally in 1712 (they may have married secretly in 1707) and has her crowned empress in 1724.

Less than a year later she succeeds him on the throne, as the empress Catherine I.


Seventy years of empresses: 1725-1796

It is a remarkable fact that the Russian empire established by Peter the Great is ruled for the next seven decades by women.

The only male emperors in that span are a 12-year-old boy (Peter II, grandson of Peter the Great, enthroned in 1727 and dead three years later); a two-month-old infant (Ivan VI, emperor for a year and then hidden away in prison until his death); and a German prince of feeble mind and body (Peter III, ruling for six months in 1762 before being deposed and murdered).


The reigns of four women span these decades. Catherine I, illiterate but well endowed with commonsense and strength of character (necessary qualifications to survive as Peter the Great's intimate companion), has proved her sterling qualities before her reign. But she has only two years on the throne, dying in 1727.

Her successor Anna, a daughter of Peter the Great's half-brother Ivan V, is the only weak character among the four. Ruling from 1730 to 1740, her interest is mainly in the fashionable entertainments of the day. Sumptuous amusements are now provided in St Petersburg, but mainly by foreigners - provoking much local indignation.


Elizabeth, reigning from 1741 to 1762, brings back the vigorous mood of Peter the Great - appropriately, since she is a daughter of Peter and of Catherine I. Russian interests are now energetically pursued again, particularly in opposition to Prussia in the early stages of the Seven Years' War.

Elizabeth leaves her crown to Peter III, the German grandson of her elder sister. Inheriting early in 1762, he proves totally unsuited to the task. But his wife, a German princess, more than makes up for his inadequacies. Within six months she acquires her husband's throne and before the year is out he is murdered, almost certainly with her connivance. She will rule for thirty-four years, justifiably becoming known as Catherine the Great.


Catherine the Great: 1762-1796

Catherine is both brilliant and passionate. Her many lovers provide rich material for scandal and gossip in the courts of Europe, and several of her most talented advisers and generals feature in the list. But the programme which they put into effect is hers, as is the interest in political theory and in the advancement of Russia which shapes her policy.

Contemporary French ideas fascinate her most. Like Frederick the Great, she corresponds with Voltaire and the encyclopedists whose ideas are fashioning the Enlightenment.


After seizing the throne in 1762, Catherine rapidly adopts the reforming role of an enlightened despot. In relatively simple areas such as education and culture she is successful. In 1764 she takes steps to provide education for Russian girls. In the same year she founds the Hermitage as a court museum attached to the Winter Palace in St Petersburg (the entire collection of Robert Walpole is one of her purchases).

In the difficult field of social reform, she attempts with less success to improve the lot of her people.


Before her accession Catherine has been in favour of emancipating Russia's serfs. In 1767 she writes an Instruction outlining a programme of reform (so radical that its publication is banned in France), and she summons an elected assembly to consider it. It soon becomes evident that the nobles (whose wealth is commonly assessed by the number of serfs they own) will resist any change. Needing their support, Catherine abandons her plans.

Ironically the lot of the peasants deteriorates during her reign. When she dies, almost every peasant in Russia is a serf - as a result of her granting crown lands (where the peasants are free) to favourites and nobles who are allowed to impose the conditions of serfdom.


Frustrated in her efforts at internal reform, Catherine turns with great success to foreign policy, eventually achieving major gains at the expense of both Turkey and Poland.

Catherine addes a new element to Russia's Turkish policy, previously concerned only with the strategic matter of access to the Black Sea. Building upon the ancient theme of Moscow as the Third Rome, she now presents Russia as the natural political patron of all Orthodox Christians within the territory of the old Byzantine empire. She even dreams of one of her grandsons ruling in Constantinople, and in pious hope has the boy named Constantine. But first there is the practical matter of war against the Turks.


Russo-Turkish wars: 1768-1792

Russia's interest in reaching the Black Sea, attempted but not lastingly achieved by Peter the Great, is furthered in two wars at the end of the 18th century. A conflict of 1768-74 brings Russian successes in several battles and leads to important concessions. Russia gains fortresses to west and east of the Crimean peninsula, together with the right to maintain a fleet in the Black Sea.

Moreover the Turks grant Russia the right of protection over all Christians within the European parts of the Ottoman empire. The meaning of this is rather vaguely specified, but it will give the Russians a useful pretext for future intervention in the Balkans.


The Tatar khan ruling the Crimea is declared in the same treaty of 1774 (that of Kuchuk Kainarji) to be independent of Turkey. Catherine the Great takes this as a pretext for annexing his valuable Crimean peninsula in 1783, a period when Russia is at peace with Turkey.

War breaks out again in 1787. Again Russia prevails. A treaty signed in January 1792 at Jassy leaves the northern coast of the Black Sea in Russian hands from the Dniester river to the Kerch Strait. Having won a role in the Baltic in the early part of the century, Russia now also has access to the Mediterranean through the Black Sea. Meanwhile valuable new acquisitions have again been made in the Baltic region, at the expense of Poland.


Three partitions of Poland: 1772-1796

Over a period of a quarter of a century Poland is dismembered and consumed by her neighbours. The process begins during the confusion of a war between Russia and Turkey. In 1769 Austria takes the opportunity of occupying part of Poland, to the south of Cracow.

Frederick the Great follows suit in 1770, sending troops to seal off the coastal region between the two main parts of his realm (Brandenburg and the kingdom of Prussia). This valuable area, known as Polish royal Prussia, has long been part of the Polish kingdom. Frederick claims that he is acting only in precaution against an outbreak of cattle plague. But acquiring royal Prussia would neatly unify his territory.


The first official annexation of Polish land is cynically agreed in 1772 between Russia, Prussia and Austria. Russia, at war with Turkey, has an interest in keeping Prussia and Austria in benign mood. She accepts the proposal that each of them should annexe part of Poland. Russia's influence in the kingdom means that she can force acceptance of the arrangement on the Poles.

By the treaties of 1772 Austria acquires the region round Lvov. Frederick secures royal Prussia (with the exception at this stage of the port of Gdansk). And Russia takes a slice of northeast Poland.


The next two partitions occur when Russia finds new excuses to intervene in Poland's internal affairs. Russian armies enter the kingdom during a disturbance in 1792, and are on hand again to tackle a national insurrection in 1794.

On both occasions Polish armies offer strong resistance to superior Russian forces. But force prevails. After a two-month siege, and a massacre of Poles in the suburbs, Warsaw falls in September 1794 to a combined Russian and Prussian army.


The second partition, agreed in 1793, benefits only Prussia and Russia. Prussia now receives Gdansk and a swathe of land stretching south almost to Cracow. Russia takes a vast slice of eastern Poland, amounting to some 97,000 square miles.

This is greater than the territory which Poland now retains, in a strip from the Baltic coast down to Cracow and Brody. A few years later, in treaties of 1795 and 1796, this final Polish remnant is divided between the three predators. Prussia is extended east to include Warsaw. The Austrian frontier moves north to the same area. Once again the lion's share, in the east, goes to Russia.


Previous page Page 4 of 11 Next page
Up to top of page HISTORY OF RUSSIA